Three years after the nation's first president made that promise to Iroquois leaders, a pair of land agents representing New York State bought up three-quarters of upstate acreage owned by the Onondaga Indian Nation. The deal gave the state most of the 100 square miles then reserved for the Indians south of the "Salt Lake"—land that eventually made up much of Syracuse and its immediate suburbs.
Two centuries later, after simmering for generations over the legitimacy of those deals, Onondaga leaders are considering how best to file a claim that they still legally own the most populated portion of Central New York.
"We're trying to get some justice," said Leon Shenandoah, an Onondaga chief who is "Tadodaho"—or ranking chief—in the six upstate Indian tribes that make up the Iroquois Confederacy.
His nation is expected to base its claim on a history of federal assurances and treaties from the 1790s-particularly the Trade and Intercourse acts, which forbid states from buying up Indian land without federal approval, and the Treaty of Canandaigua, in which the U.S. government recognized the Iroquois boundaries.
Modern-day judges have consistently ruled that time has not diminished those obligations. In similar claims filed by Oneida and Cayuga tribes over the past 20 years, the Iroquois have won a series of landmark court decisions based on the promises made in Washington's time.
Like other Onondaga leaders, however, Shenandoah is cautious commenting on the claim, emphasizing it's still under discussion in the longhouse—where people of his tribe make their decisions.
Just three weeks ago, Onondaga leaders raised the likelihood of the claim while talking with state officials about hunting rights, said Herbert Doig, assistant commissioner of the state Dept. of Environmental Conservation. Shenandoah said the topic has surfaced frequently in longhouse meetings over the last year.
Robert Venables, Cornell University history professor, is helping Onondagas research treaties and policies that will shape any claim. He knows the chiefs well, and said Syracuse residents shouldn't fear an attempt to evict them from their homes.
Venables said it's more likely the Onondagas will seek from the state settlement involving monetary payment and the addition of property to their existing 7,300-acre reserve near Nedrow. Most important, Venables said, tribal leaders hope to enlighten the public about historical wrongs done to the Iroquois nations in violation of federal treaties meant to protect them.
"The only comment I would make is that it's our law, not Onondaga law, that's driving this claim," Venables said. "I hope it never goes to court. I hope it's negotiated and settled by the executive branch of the federal government..."
William Starna, chairman of the anthropology dept. at SUNY College at Oneonta, said the Onondagas may have balked initially at filing a claim because they feel that suing the state detracts from their treaty—guaranteed status as a sovereign nation.
"But there are pragmatists among the Onondagas who recognize they have an extremely strong case, and a settlement would be positive for the entire Onondaga community," he said.
Onondagas Build Case on History of Broken Deals
Onondaga Chief Irving Powless declined to comment specifically on any potential land claim. He noted, however, that the state took most of his nation's ancient lands, and he said Iroquois leaders respect only federal treaties between sovereign governments—particularly the Canandaigua pact of 1794. Powless also referred to an essay he wrote for a book entitled Iroquois Land Claims [by Syracuse University Press 1988], in which he compared white settlers to squatters who take up unauthorized residence in an empty room of an occupied house.
"You're not hostages in our house," he wrote. "We don't hold you here. But we do recognize that you're in our house. We have people working on settling the dispute as to how you should live in our house... It must be set down, solid, as it was three, four thousand years ago," Powless wrote, "that we are the landowners."
A Strong Claim
The Onondagas—who were left with a corner of their original reserve after a series of treaties with state agents between 1793 and 1822—have a formidable argument, according to scholars and legal experts familiar with both sides of Iroquois land claims. The strength of their claim is underlined by Allan van Gestel, Boston lawyer who represented upstate municipalities and landowners against land claims by Cayuga and Oneida nations.
"The decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1985 in the Oneida case made it very difficult to defend against a case based on clear violations of the Trade and Intercourse Act," van Gestel said.
In considering an Oneida Nation land claim, the nation's highest court determined that 1790 Congressional Act—which directly prohibited states from buying Indian land without federal approval—bound the original 13 colonies, including New York.
Yet in 1793, two state agents—Simeon DeWitt and John Cantine—put down $410 and bought property that would eventually become much of Syracuse and its immediate suburbs.
"The (original) reservation was about 11 3/8 miles long... and included parts of the towns of LaFayette, Camillus, Geddes, DeWitt, and the city of Syracuse, and all of (the town of Onondaga)," historian J. H. French wrote in his 1844 Gazetteer of New York. By 1822, following several smaller land sales to the state, the Onondagas held only a fraction of what had been a reservation of 100 square miles.
NYS still pays members of Onondaga Nation $2,400 a year in treaty annuities, along with the annual provision of 150 bushels of salt—which was intended to compensate the Onondagas for the loss of the salt-rich deposits along Onondaga Lake. The cash is broken down into tiny individual payments for each member by Louella Derrick, an Onondaga who serves as Indian agent for the state Bureau of Indian Affairs. This summer, Derrick said, every person with verified Onondaga blood will receive a check for about $1.50. Many Onondaga scornfully refuse to cash the checks as a quiet protest.
"A lot of people nail them to their walls," Powless said.
Still, Shenandoah makes no prediction on when the Onondagas will go public with their land claim. "I know we have to talk about it shortly, about how we're going to do it—the whole thing, or one piece at a time," he said. He said it's too early to speculate on whether the claim will focus on the post-1790 deals with the state, or on the sprawling aboriginal hunting territory of the Onondagas—which covered much of Central New York and a sliver of the southern tier.
Like Bernie Parker—a chief on the Tonawanda Seneca reserve near Buffalo, whose tribe is also considering a large land claim—Shenandoah said the Onondagas are still mapping out strategy. Shenandoah said his nation will initially appeal directly to President Bush, since the Treaty of Canandaigua was negotiated between sovereign governments.
Parker—whose tribe is considering a claim on roughly four million acres of Western New York following boundaries specified in the Canandaigua treaty—agreed settlement talks are preferable. "If litigation is pursued on this," he said, "it'd be mind-boggling."
Other Treaty Issues
Parker and Shenandoah said the state's financial crisis might provide room to use land claims as a wedge in negotiating other treaty issues important to the Iroquois. Those issues include whether Indian merchants are subject to state taxes and addressing the Onondagas' long-standing claim they should be allowed unrestricted hunting outside the reserve.
Parker said he expects the Grand Council of chiefs from the six Iroquois nations will release a general statement on treaty grievances before any action begins on either claim.
"We're going to have to do more talking between ourselves about how we're going to do it," Shenandoah said. "One day we'll get down to it."
Robert Batson, state special counsel expert in Indian land claims, said he's had no formal proposal about Onondaga or Seneca action. But he said Onondaga leaders told Gov. Mario Cuomo in a meeting last fall they were getting ready to put forward their claim.
Veilette, special assistant to NY Director of Operations Henrick Dullea, said confederacy leaders included land claims on a 21-point list of outstanding issues that need to be resolved in Albany. "The state recognizes the (Onondaga) claim is in the pipeline," Veilette said.
Bad Faith Deals
Historians have documented generations-old contention among Onondagas that early state treaties sprang from bribery and deceit. Both Shenandoah and Powless, for instance, said oral tradition in their nation maintains NYS acted in bad faith in treaty negotiations.
"There was a lot of crookedness," Shenandoah said. "They (the state) would go to any Tom, Dick or Harry and say, 'He's a chief.'" Those "chiefs," Shenandoah said, would then sign away land for cash payments.
Indeed, when the state Everett Commission toured the Six Nations between 1919 and 1922 investigating Iroquois grievances, Onondaga leaders strongly argued their lands were taken illegally.
Yet the Onondagas, like other Iroquois tribes, had no legal platform for staking their claim until 1974, when the Oneida won their first watershed U.S. Supreme Court decision, said Jack Campisi, an anthropology professor at Wellesley College. The ruling upheld their right to argue land claims in a federal court. Before that decision, NY courts consistently refused to hear land claims, maintaining NY—as one of 13 original colonies—was entitled in late 1700s to make sovereign land deals with Indians.
But well-documented federal treaties give particular weight to Iroquois arguments, said Thomas Tureen, New England attorney who represented Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes in successful land claims against the state of Maine. Those tribes, he said, won an $81.5 million federal settlement behind court precedents that established as illegal the post-1790 sale of 12.5 million acres of Indian-owned territory in the state of Maine.
The six Iroquois nations of New York, he said, are bolstered both by federal legislation, and by protection offered in the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua—which re-established that any lands still held by the Iroquois would remain in their possession "until they choose to sell the same to the people of the United States, who have the right to purchase."
The Onondagas—who note that federal treaty was written during the same period as the U.S. Constitution—say it should receive the same respect from U.S. citizens and lawmakers.
But it was the state—rather than federal agents—who would make more land deals with the Onondaga following that 1794 promise at Canandaigua. In 1795, for $10 down, the Onondagas sold their right to a one-mile "salt reserve" surrounding what would become Onondaga Lake. In 1817, for $430 a year in permanent annual payments and 50 annual bushels of salt, the Onondagas sold a 4,320-acre slice of land on the east side of their reserve. And they made their final deal with the state in 1822, selling 800 acres at the south end of their dwindling property for a $1,700 one-time payment.
Washington wampum belt
All of those deals, say land claim specialists, could be challenged on the basis of the Trade and Intercourse acts.
"Whenever the Onondagas get around to following through, their case will be as strong, if not stronger, than the others," said Howard Rowley, a Rochester Gas and Electric executive who has served as a state point man during negotiations with the Oneidas and Cayugas-tribes that have both won precedent-setting victories while pursuing their land claims.
"The Onondagas have a way of doing these things right," said Rowley, noting they traditionally avoid much of the obvious and bitter infighting that hampers other Iroquois nations.
Shaping a Conflict
Both Campisi and William Fenton, another anthropologist who worked extensively with the Iroquois, say land claim roots lie in turbulent politics that shaped the United States' early years.
In years following victory of 13 colonies in the Revolutionary War, Washington—the nation's first president—tried to appease the powerful Iroquois tribes. His approach was fueled by concern the Mohawks, Onondagas, Oneidas, Tuscaroras, Cayugas, and Senecas might join into a strong alliance with the Indians of Ohio, who continued to war with migrating white settlers.
To reassure the Iroquois, the Washington administration pushed through a series of treaties and assurances that existing Indian lands would be safe from sale or encroachment by any agency except the federal government. At the heart of these assurances—the core issue in many of the land claims today—was the Indian Trade and Intercourse Act of 1790.
But New York and its top elected official, Gov. George Clinton, ignored its prohibition against dealing with the Indians.
"You see, (the) governor didn't really feel the federal government was going to survive," Fenton said. "They set about making treaties in direct contradiction of the nonintercourse acts."
That was the case in 1793, when state land agents DeWitt and Cantine showed up at the Onondaga reserve to buy up much of what was set aside for the tribe in a 1788 treaty at Fort Schuyler-the modern site of Rome. The 1788 treaty ceremony, in which the Onondagas sold an estimated 264,000 acres of land, was attended by Gov. Clinton himself.
Campisi said Clinton's attitude toward the Iroquois—and his willingness to ignore federal directives about dealing with them—is partially explained in a 1784 letter from James Duane, a Manhattan attorney and one of the governor's trusted advisors. Duane's advice to Clinton on negotiating with the Iroquois, Campisi said, was essentially adopted as state Indian policy—and its echoes resound through today's land claims.
"I would never suffer (to allow) the word nations, or Six Nations, or confederates, or Council Fire at Onondaga, or any other form which revive or seem to confirm their former ideas of independence," Duane wrote. "They should rather be taught that by... entering into a wicked war (against the colonies), they had weakened and destroyed themselves and the publick (sic) opinion of their importance has long since ceased."
This newspaper article is remarkably accurate, fair and sympathetic, beginning with its strong opening quote of Founding Father George Washington. The headline makes clear this isn't just a claim for land, but also for justice under law—and not just human law. The reader is left knowing clearly that NYS illegally took Onondaga Nation's land, in willful and deliberate violation of common decency and federal law. After all the fighting, violence and negative publicity at Oka last year, it's a great, sighing relief to see that this first-time-ever news article on the Onondaga land claim is honest, factual and level.
Both reporter and several reportees affirm the great dignity, deliberateness and diplomacy with which the Onondagas are known to conduct their affairs. Notice they operate under a democracy in which all their decisions are made at councils in the longhouse. In their an open, democratic society, everyone—men, women, even children—have the right to be heard.
This is because they are the "Firekeepers"—the very heart of the Confederacy—and their government is based on a great, ancient tradition of peace and diplomacy which reaches back centuries to when their government was founded by a legendary and prophetic figure known as "The Peacemaker."
But this reporter makes not a single mention of this curious tradition and legend.
Yet, despite the profound democratic nature of Onondaga society, and despite George Washington's 1790 promise, 200 years ago the U.S. government stood by and did nothing while NY's Gov. Clinton robbed the Six Nations of their ancient homelands. The history of this land grab is even more complex than the legal issues.
Two Hundred Year Lie
In the last paragraphs of this Post Standard article, Clinton's legal advisor James Duane insists the Six Nations deserved rude treatment by NYS because they "enter[ed] into a wicked war (against the colonies)." This propaganda was employed to justify illegal acts against the Six Nations, and is still recited routinely in history books and newspaper articles.
In fact, the Six Nations' official policy was neutrality in "the white brothers' quarrel." Washington even made a treaty with the Confederacy to this effect in 1776.
From the outset of the Revolution, both British and Americans tried to entice friends and allies among the Six Nations to politic and fight on each ones' behalf. Some Iroquois were old friends with the colonists, while others were old allies of the British before the French and Indian Wars. Both sides wanted these powerful Six Nations as allies in the Revolutionary War. Failing to win their alliance, each side wanted to assure Iroquois neutrality.
Political struggles for British and American allegiance threatened to tear the Confederacy apart internally, causing strife, dissension and dishonor. Meanwhile, a few war chiefs and warriors became mercenaries for one side or the other. Most famous was Mohawk Joseph Brant, who was taken to England, initiated as a Mason, given a royal title, and other inducements to fight for Britain. Brant and his renegade mercenaries raided American settlements in the Susquehanna, Schoharie and Mohawk valleys to terrorize a vulnerable colonial frontier. A few Oneidas and Mohawks fought with colonials.
Provoked by Brant's successful attacks on a colonial breadbasket, in summer 1779 General Washington sent 4000 soldiers under General Sullivan up the Susquehanna into the Finger Lakes to attack the Six Nations, who still maintained official neutrality. Unprepared for such a huge invasion, the natives withdrew and fought only small defensive skirmishes. Frustrated by the failure of the Iroquois to fight, Sullivan burned their villages, crops, storehouses, and orchards. This forever earned Washington the title "Village Burner" in native memory.
By the winter of 1779, the Six Nations had no homes or food, and withdrew to British protection at Fort Niagara where they survived the winter on meager rations in holes in the ground. Many died, especially the young and elderly.
In the 1780s, newly independent America operated under its own Articles of Confederation. How an ancient native Confederacy was torn apart by the birth of this new Confederacy a long, complex, fascinating, nearly forgotten story. But I must be brief here.
Divide & Conquer
After the war, many survivors returned to their homelands to rebuild their villages, fields and orchards. Joseph Brant and his followers, however, were given a British land grant in what is now Ontario, and settled there. Thus, Brant's mercenary treachery and its devastating military and political consequences split the Confederacy—a wound that still is barely healed today. Today, Six Nations people live separate lives with separate governments on opposite sides of the U.S.-Canada border.
After the war, the NY, Massachusetts and U.S. governments all claimed control over the Iroquois and their lands, even though none had any legal rights to such claims. NY's Gov. George Clinton made a deal with Massachusetts recognizing their claim to lands west of Buffalo Creek, thus leaving NY with only the U.S. to contend with in its claim to the Finger Lakes, Genesee Valley, Ontario Lake Plain, and Adirondacks.
In the 1780s, a great debate raged among young America's leaders over whether to form a strong central (federal) government. Gov. Clinton opposed this federalism, and wrote public papers (most under a pseudonym) opposing views espoused in The Federalist Papers. Gov. Clinton believed in states' rights, and that the central U.S. government would fail.
In 1789, the U.S. Constitution was ratified, but Gov. Clinton held out for states' rights, including his right to deal with the Six Nations. To Clinton, they were the "New York Indians."
In Sept. 1788, Gov. Clinton took his army to Fort Schuyler to "treat with" (that is, intimidate) the Six Nations. He refused to meet with them as a Confederacy, but, using the ages-old "divide and conquer," met with each separately. However, the nations refused to part with land, but with Clinton's army threatening, each felt compelled to make concessions.
On Sept. 12, 1788, Clinton wrote a treaty for the Onondagas, Firekeepers (or "capitol") of the Confederacy. Foremost of Onondaga lands was the Salt Lake, so-named because abundant salt springs bubbled up around it. Clinton wanted this lake and its valuable mineral springs. Clinton's Salt Treaty to the Onondagas began: "The Onondagoes do hereby cede and grant all their lands to the people of the State of New York forever." Onondaga chiefs refused to sign, and Clinton left frustrated but unrelenting, and went to meet with Oneidas, who also refused to sign away land.
Clinton kept pressuring the Iroquois to sign treaties. Finally, on June 16, 1790, according to historical records I've read, the "28 chiefs and principal women" ratified the Salt Treaty. It's worth noting that among the Onondagas—a matrilineal culture—land title is vested in the women, and any agreement to transfer land is invalid unless agreed to by the clanmothers, who are the heads of the clan-families. Thus there are 14 chiefs and 14 clanmothers. However, the history I've read fails to detail how Clinton extracted this concession from the Onondagas.
However, history does record how Clinton got the Oneidas to sign their land away. He lied. Oneidas told him they had heard he wanted their land, but Clinton publicly denied this intent. Rather, he insisted, some unscrupulous whites had already taken some Oneida land. Clinton proclaimed he wanted to protect the Oneidas from such greedy whites, but he couldn't use the power of NYS unless they signed the treaty. Oneidas didn't trust Clinton, and continued to hold out, but eventually succumbed to Clinton's deceptions and intimidations.
Eventually, each tribe signed treaties ceding land to NYS, but Clinton didn't get what he wanted. For example, Onondaga agreed to only share their Salt Lake with NYS, and only "for the purpose of making salt, and not be sold, leased or disposed of for any other purpose."
It was by the Salt Lake a legendary man known as Peacemaker united the Five Nations together to bury the hatchet and plant The Tree of Peace, thus forming the Confederacy and founding North America's oldest democracy. That's another long lost, fascinating tale. But onward.
Land conceded by the Six Nations was quickly surveyed and divided into square military tracts and deeded to Revolutionary War soldiers to pay off NY's war debts. This land disposition further reveals NY's militaristic ambitions and Euro-centric culture. Today, NY is "The Empire State", and Fort Schuyler is now "The City of Rome." How's that for symbolism?
Dispute Over Legal Jurisdiction
The Six Nations appealed to the new U.S. President Washington for help against Clinton's rough and rude ambitions. The U.S. was already trying to prevent an Ohio Valley Indian war, which the young, fragile nation couldn't afford financially or militarily. Clinton's treatment of the Six Nations stirred fear in U.S. leaders he'd provoke war in the Finger Lakes, too.
So, in 1790, a new U.S. Congress passed the Trade and Intercourse Act specifically to lay down the law governing Gov. Clinton's Indian affairs. This Act said no state, corporation or private person could make a treaty, contract or other agreement with any Indian tribe without the consent of Congress—meaning all agreements had to be ratified by Congress. In street language, it said Clinton couldn't screw the Indians without the consent of Congress, otherwise it was rape, which is against law.
Clinton knowingly and deliberately ignored this Act, claiming these "New York Indians" weren't under federal jurisdiction, and continued to press the six nations for more concessions. In 1793, he induced Onondagas to sign another treaty ceding more land, but still they refused to part with their Salt Lake.
So, in 1793, again largely due to Clinton's actions, Congress passed another Trade and Intercourse Act to further require federal Indian commissioners be present during negotiation with Indian tribes. This was to prevent people like Clinton from using bribes, intimidation or deception to induce tribes to sign treaties.
Clinton continued to insist the Six Nations were "NY Indians" and exempt from federal laws. He kept pressuring the tribes to sign more treaties ceding more land to NY. Clinton's arrogant actions were based on a legal presumption which prevailed for 130 years until 1921 when NY's joint executive-legislative Everett Commission reported its findings on "The Status of the NY Indians." After three years of study, the Commission found NYS had violated laws of sovereignty, and failed to extinguish title. The Commission's report was quashed and never published.
In 1794, responding to appeals for help from the Six Nations leaders (especially the Seneca), the U.S. government signed the Treaty of Canandaigua which recognized the sovereignty and the lands of the Six Nations. The U.S. also agreed to protect the Six Nations from loss of their lands.
Unrelenting, Clinton sent agents to force more treaty concessions from the Six Nations. Finally, in 1795, Clinton won his great desire—the Onondagas agreed to part with their Salt Lake. Within a decade, a large community settled there and a town was erected at the Salt Lake to mine the salt springs there. This salt industry would provide much of NY's revenue and most of America's salt for the next 75 years until salt mines were opened in Michigan after the Civil War.
Today, the City of Syracuse (known as the Salt City) sits largely on land ceded in this 1795 treaty.
Sovereignty and Title
Gov. Clinton got the Iroquois lands, but he didn't do it right. First, he violated federal laws specifically enacted to restrain him from taking Iroquois lands. Because of his legal presumptions, he chose to ignore those laws. Thus, he never submitted NYS' treaties to the U.S. Congress for ratification. Therefore, those treaties never became binding.
However, U.S. law specifically prevents an Indian tribe from suing a state, so the Iroquois could not sue NY for stealing their land. For 180 years the native nations believed they had no legal recourse to contest NY's illegal actions.
However, in 1965, lawyer George Shattuck became convinced Oneida Chief Loren Thompson was correct to assert Clinton had cheated the tribe. Shattuck presented this case to county, state and federal governments—including legislative, executive and judicial branches at each level, and also three U.S. Presidents. Not one paid him any attention.
Shattuck felt there must be some way to introduce this legal issue into the courts. He discovered that although a tribe can't sue a state, they aren't barred from suing a county. So, in 1970, Shattuck filed suit against Oneida and Madison counties for illegal trespass on Indian land. The case was accepted and soon traveled from state to federal courts.
In 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Oneida case that because Clinton knowingly and willfully violated federal trade and intercourse acts, NY's treaties with the Oneida Nation are invalid.
The U.S. Supreme Court not only ruled that NYS violated the 1790 and 1793 Trade and Intercourse Acts, but also that the U.S. government was negligent in its sworn obligation to protect Oneida Nation from exactly what NY was then doing. Therefore, said the highest court, the federal government must join Oneida Nation to obtain compensation from NY for NY's illegal actions, including paying legal expenses for the Nation's quest for justice.
It's worth knowing Oneida Nation, who largely sided with colonists in the Revolution, only has 36 acres left in Madison County, NY—and all that is owned by one Oneida family. And Cayuga Nation, which filed a claim in 1975, has no land at all.
Legal minds quickly realized this shocking and unexpected decision by the Court opened a great can of worms, since the same legal principles applied to NY's treaties with the other five nations of the Confederacy. In 1976, Cayuga Nation, which has no land at all, filed its own claim against NY based on the legal standing of the Oneida claim. NY has never contested the Cayuga claim, and is still negotiating for a settlement.
However, NYS challenged the 1974 Oneida ruling, mounting several legal arguments against it. The strongest was that the statute of limitations had expired, and therefore the Oneidas, even though they were cheated and robbed by NYS in violation of federal laws, couldn't make claims against NY 180 years later.
In 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a treaty between a state and a sovereign nation is equal to, and not under, the U.S. Constitution as the supreme law of the land, and therefore the statute of limitations does not apply to such agreements.
Thus, the Oneidas still had a lawful claim.
Since 1984, NYS has ceased litigating against the Oneida claim, and has quietly tried to negotiate a settlement. Because the potential settlement involves not only NYS and the U.S., butr also several NY counties and townships, plus numerous factions of the Oneidas themselves, negotiations are complex and slow—and effectively stalled. But NYS has conceded loss of the legal battle and Clinton's violation of law, and is trying to offer land and money to extinguish the Oneidas' claim.
However, there is a further legal issue not addressed by the Court's ruling. Only a sovereign nation can extinguish the title of another sovereign nation. NYS was never a sovereign, while the Iroquois made treaties with both Britain and U.S. which recognized Six Nations' sovereignty.
Because none of NYS' treaties were ratified by the sovereign—namely, the U.S.—then NYS "failed to extinguish title." Even if any of NY's treaties with the Six Nations were valid (which they aren't), still, those treaties were never ratified by Congress, so title was never extinguished. Therefore, title still resides with the original sovereign—the Six Nations. NYS never bought the land, but merely leased it.
Two thirds of NYS is still under title to the Six Nations.
Leases & the Law Against Perpetuity
Under U.S. law, due to the rule against perpetuities, a lease has a maximum term of 99 years, then it expires and must be renewed. This prevents land from being perpetually removed from access. A grace period of one year is provided to renegotiate a 99-year lease. If, in the 99+1th year, neither party makes any claim, then, by default, the agreement can be considered renewed for another 99+1 years.
This is what happened in 1890. Since neither NYS nor the Six Nations understood the legal situation, neither party to Clinton's leases said anything, and so the treaties were, by default, renewed for another 99+1 years. However, now, in the 1990s, both the Six Nations and NYS (and also the federal government) understand the implications of Gov. Clinton's false legal presumptions in making treaties with the Six Nations.
On June 16, 1990, the Salt Treaty between Onondaga Nation and NYS expired. On Dec. 30, 1989, Onondaga Nation notified NY's Governor it intended to negotiate a new agreement.
The Salt Treaty is the first in a series of treaties between NYS and the Six Nations which will expire in the 1990s. Therefore, these leases for two-thirds of what is currently considered NYS must be renegotiated.
The recognition of their sovereign title to their ancestral homelands is the number one issue on the agenda of Onondaga Nation—indeed, of all the Six Nations. The Peacemaker instructed them to always make decisions with a view of how their acts will affect their offspring unto the seventh generation. Remembering this wisdom, the Onondagas aren't likely to engage in short-sighted, land-for-cash deals to extinguish their claim. They know the tide of history is on their side now, and, in their situation, to do nothing is wiser than to act rashly. As Leon Shenandoah told me years ago: "We don't have any power. It's up to the Creator to protect us. All we can do is follow our ancestral spiritual instructions."
This Commentary is long and complex, yet still only grazes the surface of the history and law of this remarkable situation. So far only one newspaper article has tried to address the issues lurking here, preparing to emerge onto the stage of modern history.
To close, I point out the Six Nations Confederacy, founded by Peacemaker at Onondaga (Salt) Lake, and based on his Great Law of Peace, is North America's oldest democracy—and the first United Nations. Yet, today, in the United Nations, not one nation of native Americans is recognized and seated with voting rights.
The Six Nations as surviving sovereign nations of native America, have the strongest claim to a seat in the United Nations, thus giving voice and vote to peoples and nations of the red race, who alone of the races in the family of humanity, are excluded.
It is now seven generations since Gov. Clinton stole the Six Nations' homelands. That the Six Nations still, after 200 years, have a lawful claim to their original homelands, and that they can make their claim in these 1990s, is extremely remarkable. It is something of a gift from Creator, for it offers us an opportunity, and encourages us as a planetary species, to do the right thing—for ourselves, and for seven generations yet to come.